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How to knit Fair Isle patterns

May 26, 2015

Many knitters tell us that they’d love to try Fair Isle colourwork knitting, but they think it’s going to be REALLY HARD.  Well I would like to dispel this myth, and show you how simple and fun it really is!  Get started by downloading our adorable free pattern, the Clayoquot Hat.

Clayoquot Toque

The Clayoquot Toque from Road Trip is simple, geometric and sized for the whole family. And it is a free pattern, which is even better!

Start by choosing some lovely DK weight yarn.  We recommend high-contrast colours so that this pattern really ‘pops’.  We have a more in-depth discussion of choosing a palette for colourwork here.

Rainbow Heirloom Sweater

I picked a classic combination! This is Rainbow Heirloom Sweater in ‘new asphalt’, ‘fluffy bunny’, and ‘fighting fish’.

Clayoquot Toque Pattern by Tin Can KnitsDownload the Clayoquot Hat pattern, choose your size, and get started.  This design has a conventional construction: you cast on, work ribbing in the round, then knit a few rounds before starting the pattern.

To work the Fair Isle colourwork pattern, all you do is knit a few stitches in one colour, then switch to another colour, and knit a few stitches in that.  The charts show just how many stitches to do in each colour.

If you are confused about how to read a knitting chart, we have a full tutorial here.  For this pattern it is very simple – start with chart A, and work round one, reading the squares from right to left (because this is the direction you knit in when the RS of the work is facing you).

So for round 1, you will knit 2 sts with MC (main colour), then knit one stitch with CC1 (contrast colour 1), then knit one stitch with MC.  That’s the 4-stitch repeat worked once, then you continue to repeat this pattern, again and again, to the end of the round.  When you change colours, you draw the new yarn loosely across the back of the work, creating loose strands called ‘floats’.

Clayoquot Toque Knitting Chart

The chart for the Clayoquot Toque.

Once you’ve finished round 1 of chart A, you simply proceed to work rounds 2, then 3.  On round 2, you will be working with 3 colours, not just 2, but that round is only worked twice in the entire knit, so it’s not too much bother.

Fair Isle Knitting

As you can see, on Round 2 of chart A, you will be working with 3 colours at once.  The lengths of yarn drawn across the back of the work between stitches are called ‘floats’.

In terms of technique, you can use one hand to hold the yarn, then drop that yarn when you pick up the other yarn, OR you can hold one yarn in your right hand, and the other in your left to ‘throw’ with the right hand and ‘pick’ with the left.  It doesn’t really matter – try both and see with what feels comfortable to you.

Like most techniques in knitting (and everything else I suppose), practice is what you really need to gain competence, but we have put together a few helpful tips below.

LOOSEN UP… this is supposed to be relaxing, right?!

One of the rookie mistakes when knitting fair isle for the first few times is to pull the yarn floats (the strands between the stitches knit in a given colour) tightly across the back of the work, which can compress the gauge of the fair-isle section relative to your stockinette stitch gauge.

Campfire Pullover

Even we get it a little bit wrong sometimes! As you can see, this Campfire Pullover from Pacific Knits had a slightly different gauge at the colourwork section.

There are a few ways to avoid this.  If you know that when you knit fair-isle, you always have a tighter gauge than in stockinette, you can adjust for this by using larger needles (1-2 sizes up) for the stranded portion of the work.  This will help to avoid a ‘squeezed’ section of fair isle that doesn’t match the rest of the gauge.

Another method, which I personally use, is to knit with the work inside out.  This forces the yarn to be drawn along the outside of the cylinder of knitting, rather than along the inside of the cylinder.  This means the floats will be longer by default.

Fair Isle Knitting

Knitting Fair-Isle with the work inside out can help to keep your floats loose and long and your tension even

DOMINANCE… it’s important in knitting too

In Fair Isle knitting, there is a term called ‘yarn dominance’.  Essentially, the yarn that is drawn up from underneath the other yarn creates slightly larger stitches.  This yarn, called the dominant one, ‘pops’ more in the colourwork pattern.  So it is a beneficial habit to always carry the colour that you want to ‘pop’ underneath the other colour.  This also results in the benefit that the backside of the work is very tidy looking and has a beautiful pattern in its own right!  Very satisfying, if you’re a little bit OCD like me.  Ysolda has a more in-depth discussion of why yarn dominance occurs, and how important it is.

When in doubt, BLOCK IT OUT

Ladies and Gentlemen, knitters all if you’ve gotten this far down the page, let me tell you how much I love blocking!  When you are soaking a multi-colour project like the Clayoquot toque, add a little white vinegar to the soaking water, and don’t soak it for too long.  This will help to prevent vivid colours from bleeding one into the other.

Blocking a Fair Isle project

Add some white vinegar to lukewarm water

Blocking a Fair Isle project

Soak your knit for 10-20 minutes.  Then gently squeeze out the water, roll in a towel, then stomp on the towel to get most of the water out.

Blocking a Fair Isle project

Lay it out flat, pat it into shape, then allow to dry, OR…

How to block a hat

Alternatively, insert a plate or other rigid round disc into the hat to flatten out the crown decreases, then leave to dry.

With this smooth, even yarn, and my relaxed even gauge, you can’t see so much of a difference between the pre-blocking and post-blocking fabrics.  But with a ‘woolier’ wool and wonkier tension, you’ll find there is even more benefit to blocking.

Fair Isle after blocking

This is the fair isle pattern after blocking

I LOVE FAIR ISLE… what shall I knit next?

So once you’ve knit a Clayoquot toque for you (and maybe one for everybody else you know too), what will you knit next?  We’ve got a number of cool colourwork projects for you:

Share the Knit Knowledge

Do you have friends who might like to try this free pattern, or benefit from these tips? Share this post, or let them know about all the great free patterns from The Simple Collection.  And join in the conversation on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Ravelry!

Tin Can Knits on FacebookTin Can Knits on Instagram Tin Can Knits on Twitter Tin Can Knits on Pinterest Tin Can Knits Email Updates Tin Can Knits on Ravelry

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Debbie Boone permalink
    December 14, 2016 9:33 pm

    Your work is beautiful and I appreciate your advise. How many colors can you carry at a time? I’m working on a hat in the round and will have 4 colors (cars and trucks for a boy) on most rounds. Thank you. Debbie

    • December 15, 2016 11:18 am

      Hi Debbie – I suppose the possibilities are endless. Usually fair isle patterns have only 2 at a time, I have occasionally used 3, but I can see how you would need so many colours for cars.

  2. Victoria permalink
    November 27, 2016 6:24 pm

    Help! I can’t find 22 stitches x 28 rows gauge yarn! What do I do?

    • November 28, 2016 1:50 pm

      Well, the gauge on the ball band isn’t necessarily the gauge YOU will get. When in doubt the stitch gauge is usually more important than the row gauge

  3. Mars permalink
    August 9, 2016 2:34 am

    How do you combat the fact that the start of the round is a row below the end of the round? The common technique of picking up the stitch below doesn’t necessarily work with all fair isle patterns

    • August 9, 2016 4:21 pm

      Hi – I don’t really combat it, there is usually a jog. I try to keep the beginning of round in the least conspicuous spot and with a block it usually ‘lines’ up a bit better.

  4. January 27, 2016 7:16 am

    Nice blog post. I’ve never tried knitting with the wrong side out—but I’ll try that. Thanks for all the tips. :)

  5. Paulette Arnst permalink
    May 29, 2015 5:42 am

    Also, tried to print the pattern “Harvest”. Just get first page or two. Seems that the patterns I paid for print, but the free ones don’t.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  6. Paulette Arnst permalink
    May 28, 2015 4:54 pm

    I have just purchased the ebook. Found patterns on Ravelry, downloaded and printed them. Tried to print pattern for the toque yesterday and today, but it only prints part of the first page and nothing else. Is there a problem? Paulette Arnst

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • May 29, 2015 12:13 pm

      Hi Paula – I just downloaded and printed the Clayoquot Toque and it worked for me…

  7. Shay_pay permalink
    May 27, 2015 4:10 pm

    Thanks for the great tutorial! I did just that when I blocked my last hat as per advice from Alexa, and they didn’t grow 3 sizes! You ladies are awesome!!😀

  8. knittedblissjc permalink
    May 27, 2015 12:46 pm

    I love that idea in particular about working stranded knitting inside out if you’re having trouble keeping the floats loose- great tip!

  9. May 27, 2015 5:11 am

    What a wonderful tip,I started knitting in October of last year,I haven’t put my needles down only to work, eat and sleep.I am getting pretty good,lots of trial and error,but Its okay.I really would love to get something started in fair isle .Thank you for the help.

  10. hookednewknitter permalink
    May 26, 2015 10:06 pm

    Thanks for all the tips. I’m really enjoying fairisle knitting – you are right about practising with tension!

  11. May 26, 2015 7:15 pm

    Seeing your color choice made me think of some yarn leftover from a project with three colours, I might have enough to try this hat. Thanks for the pattern, I have never done Fair Isle before and a hat is really a perfect project to try it.

  12. May 26, 2015 3:32 pm

    I’m getting braver….just a little tiny bit….and these patterns are so beautiful, I’m going to give it a try…

  13. May 26, 2015 11:06 am

    Wow thanks for the tips…I’ve only tried fairisle once and found my stitches got really uneven. Maybe I’ll try again over winter
    H.

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